Jakob Sheikh and his childhood friend Amir have a lot in common. They both have Pakistani fathers and Danish mothers, and were brought up in a lower-middle class area in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district. Now in their 20s, Sheikh is a journalist at Politiken newspaper, while Amir has fought for the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
They lost contact with each other as teenagers, but bumped into each other recently on Istedgade. It took Sheikh a few minutes to register what Amir had told him, that he had travelled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, or IS. Then he recognised a golden opportunity – Sheikh has written more than 50 stories about foreign fighters for Politiken. Now his old friend was one.
Sheikh wrote an essay – written with Amir’s consent, but on the condition his surname be withheld – about his encounter, which explored why his friend had taken the radical path, and he hadn’t.
Radicalised while vulnerable
Their lives weren’t identical. Sheikh was sent to a private primary and high school, while Amir stayed in the public schools before going to technical college. Amir’s life was also less stable. When he was 17, his parents divorced, he fell out with his brother, and he dropped out of school.
“A lot went wrong for Amir at the same time. He might have been OK if just one part of his life had fallen apart. But it all happened at the same time, during which he fell in with a group that hung around his local mosque, a group that ended up radicalising him,” Sheikh says.
He and a colleague recently profiled 15 Danish foreign fighters who have been killed while in Syria and Iraq – and what they found surprised them.
“They tend not to be economically marginalised; they’re not working poor. Many speak Danish without an accent and navigate safely in the Danish society. They are formed by Danish institutions and grow up in moderate families. They have average lives, so why do they become more extreme than their parents? What we found is that they were socially marginalised and felt excluded at a time when their lives were falling apart.”
Sheikh managed to succeed despite his modest past, growing up in a neighbourhood with friends who would later become criminals. One reason is Sheikh’s private school education, which gave him insight into Danish society and prevented him from feeling socially excluded, like Amir did.
“During school I would do homework with Anton and Sigurd, and after school I’d play football with Shoaib and Ahmed. I had feet in two worlds, but sadly there are too few like me – most only really knew one world. They could see into the other, but they didn’t participate. Amir even thought I was too Danish, that I had turned my back on the group he belonged to.”
Sheikh is of two minds about Amir. On the one hand, he condemns Amir’s decision to fight for the caliphate while also returning to Denmark, where he is afforded protection and security as a Danish citizen. This hypocrisy is widespread among foreign fighters, Sheikh argues.
“I could talk to Amir about everything from football to girls, but when it came to religion, he was impervious to argument. He had seen the light and I hadn’t. Yet.”
But he also understands why social exclusion leads people to seek radicalised communities, and how this happens in a country like Denmark. Growing up, he was occasionally targeted for his dark skin, but got so used to it that he hardly noticed that it was happening until, in high school, his friends pointed out the unwelcome attention he received.
“They thought it was weird that when I was shouted at, I’d turn my cheek and say I don’t give a fuck. I also got used to being barred from nightclubs if I went out with my dark-skinned friends, while I never had a problem when I went out with my white friends. But I just accepted it, and didn’t realise it was a big deal.”
His editor disagreed, and the Politiken ran a cover story about how Sheikh and three dark-skinned friends had been turned away at five out of six Copenhagen clubs. The report led the city to crack down on nightlife discrimination and revoke licences for clubs that could be proven to practice racial discrimination.
While generally an open and tolerant society, Sheikh argues that Denmark is still imbued with structural racism against people who don’t conform to its norms.
“If people use different solutions to mainstream society, they get excluded. If you use your family to find a partner, that’s seen as weird. But you only need to go back 50 or 60 years in Denmark to find a time when marrying solely for love, without regard to your family’s interests, was frowned upon.”
As a third invasion of Iraq by Western forces gets underway – if only from the air – the world appears unified against the threat that IS poses. The Danish government recently introduced new initiatives to restrict the flow of Danes to the region, including the possibility of confiscating the passports of those planning to travel. The UN Security Council also unanimously passed a resolution to combat so-called “foreign terrorist fighters”.
But while there is plenty of evidence that IS is a nasty organisation, Sheikh argues that the actual threat it poses might not be as severe as we think. This is important when discussing which initiatives to use to combat the group and its supporters in the west.
“The political debate about fighting radicalisation seems to be very focussed on punishing individuals that are seen as religiously radicalised. They want to combat the group’s religious aspect. But too few politicians are talking about ways of addressing radicalisation through social work. My colleague and I have written a lot about this – that even though there is a religious angle, it’s ultimately a social problem. That’s how we combat gangs in Denmark, by looking at the root causes. And we should treat these fighters the same way. Amir’s life was in turmoil, but if there had been a social intervention, he might have been saved.” M